The Colgate Scene
Child artists open big doors
Rediscovery of major Aboriginal art collection leads to opportunities
|By Tim O'Keeffe|
|Parnell Dempster (Nyungar people, Western Australia), Dawn, ca. 1951. Pastel on paper, 22 7/8 x 29 3/4 in. (58 x 75.6 cm), original label inscribed "aged 13 years." Picker Art Gallery, Colgate University, Gift of Herbert A. Mayer, Class of 1929 [Enlarge] [Photos by Warren Wheeler]||
The pastel drawings, unique depictions of the Australian countryside shot through with vivid colors, were spread out on a storeroom table in the Picker Art Gallery on the Colgate campus.
They were done some 55 years ago by 10- to 14-year-old Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families and sent to live in a government settlement originally known as Carrolup, in southwestern Australia. Through the surreal landscapes, the children seem to be reaching beyond the walls of the government buildings, capitalizing on new-found freedoms to reconnect with the land that meant so much to them as members of the indigenous people known as Noongars (also spelled Nyungars or Nyoongars).
On this April day at the Picker, the children of Carrolup reached out again. It was a powerful connection -- because visiting Colgate were two Noongar men intent on seeing the drawings for the very first time. With them was a cultural anthropologist from the University of Western Australia who had devoted time and energy during the past 20 years to finding the drawings, and several Colgate administrators and faculty members who facilitated the April visit.
Athol Farmer, an Aboriginal artist rooted in the Carrolup tradition, couldn't believe the sophistication of the drawings by the untrained but highly skilled children.
"The Carrolup style is where it all began," said Farmer, "so I'm grateful to see a bit of our past." (Farmer traveled to Florence, Italy, after his weeklong visit to Colgate for an exhibition of his and other Aboriginal artists' works.)
"These paintings mean hope," said Ezzard Flowers, himself a member of the "stolen generation" of Aboriginal and mixed-descent children.
What the collection also means is an opportunity for Colgate to build upon what has emerged from the drawings' rediscovery in the Picker: new partnerships with the Noongar people and the University of Western Australia, and exciting opportunities for important scholarship and cross-cultural exchanges.
John Stanton, the anthropologist who serves as curator at the Berndt Museum of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia, said the Colgate collection of Carrolup child art is perhaps the finest in the world. Stanton said the collection at his museum, while larger, was pulled from about six different sources, unlike the Colgate collection, which came largely intact.
Delayed but fortuitous discovery
What he found, stored in a light-resistant, acid-free Solander box, floored him.
"I took the lid off this box and I saw the top drawing, a beautiful pastel drawing, and I immediately thought: Carrolup. It was a Carrolup drawing," said Morphy. "I just leapt for joy. And then I saw that this box was actually full of works on paper, piled on top of each other. So I started to take them out and each one was a Carrolup."
Morphy was thrilled that the drawings, which had not been exposed to the light for many years, were in such pristine condition.
"The colors, the extraordinary balance of colors that you get in the pastels, are one of the significant characteristics of the pieces. But they look as though they're the works of mature artists, and that's something that always surprises people about Carrolup paintings."
Having art historians and experts regularly visit campus is a benefit for the Picker.
"They specialize in certain areas and are able to support attributions, which is very important and very fortunate for us," said Diane Butler, curator at the Picker. Morphy saw 65 drawings that roughly measured 8 inches by 10 inches or 10 inches by 15 inches. Another 48 drawings, including five framed pieces (the largest is approximately 29 inches by 43 inches), were discovered this year. Michelle Van-Auken, technical coordinator at the Picker, has been digitizing images of the drawings, and Dawn Figueroa, gallery assistant, prepared the drawings for viewing.
"It's an extremely fortuitous discovery that seems to open the door for a whole variety of new relationships," said Elizabeth Barker, who became director of the Picker on July 1. Barker has not had an opportunity to spend significant time with the drawings, but she said she was "surprised to find how accomplished the drawings are and how really beautiful they are."
|Reynold Hart (Nyungar people, Western Australia), The Blue Plate, ca. 1951. Pastel on paper, 10 x 9 5/8 in. (24.5 x 24.4 cm), original label inscribed "aged 13 years." Picker Art Gallery, Colgate University, Gift of Herbert A. Mayer, Class of 1929 [Enlarge] [Photo by Warren Wheeler]||
"We feel that these works are of sufficient quality and of historical
importance to merit serious academic study" over the next several years, she
said. Already this year, Colgate students in Australia for an off-campus study
experience at the University of Wollongong have been studying copies of the
drawings and reading about Carrolup. University studies professor Rob Figueroa
is using the child art as part of the students' examination of political
ecology and environmental justice issues, especially as they pertain to
Aboriginal land issues.|
Geography professor Ellen Kraly has led study groups and spent time in southwestern Western Australia, examining the population and institutional vulnerabilities among indigenous communities through a demographer's lens. She met Farmer in November 2004 during a trip to the Carrolup area and played a major role in bringing him and Flowers to Colgate in April, when they saw the drawings for the first time and spoke to students in several forums, sharing impressions of the artwork and personal stories about growing up as Aborigines. Kraly told Barker that members of the Noongar community see the drawings as a source of pride, and the Noongars are excited by how seriously Colgate views the collection and the opportunities it presents for a better appreciation of their culture.
The Carrolup drawings were donated to Colgate by Herbert Mayer '29, whose generous gifts to the Picker beginning in 1966 laid the foundation for the permanent collection. At the time of the Picker's opening in 1966, the gallery didn't have a full-time curator; it served initially as a venue for the Department of Art and Art History. Mayer's gift of more than 1,000 items was stored and catalogued, but could not be fully researched.
The delayed discovery of the value of the Carrolup collection, while not a point of pride for the Picker, is not uncommon among museums and galleries, according to former interim director Jane Pinchin.
"Actually, such rediscoveries happen with some regularity," said Barker, who came to the Picker from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where she was associate curator of drawings and prints. She recalled how in 2002 a visiting scholar from Scotland discovered a drawing by Michelangelo in a storeroom at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. The scholar was looking through a box of sketches when he came across the unsigned drawing, which dates back to the mid-1500s. The study of a candelabrum had come into the museum's possession in 1942, more than 60 years before its lineage and true value were uncovered. "It was just a matter of someone with the right expertise being there at the right moment to recognize it," said Barker. Luckily, as in the case of the Carrolup drawings, the Michelangelo piece was well protected and preserved.
"This is one of the most important roles that museums serve," added Barker. "By preserving collections in the best possible condition, and by making them available to experts, our cultural heritage can be better understood and enjoyed by everyone."
Mayer was a major art collector and dealer in New York City. He appears to have acquired the drawings in London, where they were featured in exhibitions organized by Florence Rutter, a patron of the child artists who used money from the artwork sales to buy supplies for Carrolup.
How did they accomplish so much without any formal training?
"It seems to be a community of children who inspired each other, some of whom obviously had a natural facility for art. And you had a new schoolteacher who was much more liberal and who introduced art as a means of education. The whole thing took off," said Morphy.
The government, not entirely comfortable with the idea of Aboriginal children showing such talent, shut down Carrolup in 1951. A year later it was handed over to the Baptist Church and became known as Marribank Mission.
That is where Flowers found himself after his father died in 1968. Flowers said he moved among members of his extended family after his father's death, and they each took care of him and his three siblings. The government, not understanding Aboriginal culture and the extended family's vital role, saw this as neglect and removed him from his mother. He was sent to Marribank, which was then an agricultural school (today it is a cultural center).
"The government tried to take away my self-esteem and my heritage," he said. He understands the powerful emotions behind the Carrolup drawings because just like the child artists, he, too, was taken from his family. But he told the Colgate students that the drawings were powerful in other ways, as well. "The drawings offer a chance for healing and a better understanding of our culture."
|From left: John Stanton, curator at the Berndt Museum of Anthropology; Athol Farmer, a Noongar artist; Ezzard Flowers, who works to preserve Noongar culture; and Colgate geography professor Ellen Kraly look over the Carrolup drawings at the Picker Art Gallery. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]|| Flowers, who is active in preserving the Noongar culture, said he was eager to
continue working with Colgate and the University of Western Australia to raise
awareness of the drawings and to explore partnerships between the universities
and Noongar people. He thanked Kraly for "taking that journey," that three-hour
drive from Perth to Marribank that helped the Noongar community reconnect with
The past is very much a part of Farmer's painting style today. He met one of the child artists -- Revel Cooper -- years after Cooper had left Carrolup, and Farmer said he was greatly influenced by his work, eventually melding the Carrolup style into his own.
"Now it's my way of telling my story about the land, animals, and the `storyteller,'" he said.
After leaving Carrolup, many of the artists struggled with the same discrimination that confronted other indigenous people of the area. Several spent time in jail, battled alcoholism, and suffered violent deaths. Their works, though, are a critical component of understanding the Aboriginal experience, said Stanton.
Stanton has worked for years to heighten awareness of the Carrolup artists. Twenty years ago he had written to about 29 institutions and universities in New York State, seeking information about the drawings he knew had been sold by Rutter to a New York art dealer. Colgate, as fate would have it, was not one of the schools to which he wrote.
Stanton marveled at the sophistication of the drawings, which include geometric designs and other subjects, at the Picker. He said his group's visit to Colgate "was an enormous springboard for exploring scholarly and community opportunities."
Although she had not started her official duties as Picker director, Barker was able to briefly meet with Stanton and the others during their April visit. She also met with two University of Western Australia officials -- Alan Robson, vice-chancellor (president), and Peter Leunig, director of development -- when they visited Colgate in May.
While plans for the collection are in the early stages, Barker does foresee a major exhibition of the drawings at the Picker, which could travel to other cities, and a catalog she envisions as meeting the highest standards of research in Aboriginal art. The Picker director also said there are exciting opportunities for engaging the Noongar community and for broader academic and cultural exchanges between Colgate and the University of Western Australia.
"We're thinking in the broadest terms possible, but we won't be able to settle the specifics until more research and conservation analysis of the drawings has been done, and until more conversations with the University of Western Australia and within the Noongar community have taken place," she said.
Barker said that research into the collection might also hold implications for Native American cultures in the United States, and she is interested in reaching out to the tribes of central New York to explore that potential.
A selection of the Carrolup drawings is on view at the until Nov. 7. For information and directions, call 315-228-7634 or 315-228-7746 or visit www.pickerartgallery.org.
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